Praying them home: How prayer, patience, and authenticity helps young adults who left the faith return to Mass
Attending an all-boys Catholic school for most of his young life didn’t prevent Garrett Martin from straying from the faith in college. The Missouri native already felt resentful toward God when a parent’s job promotion forced him to leave his high school friends and relocate to Chicago. That alienation only grew at Michigan State University where drinking, partying, and fraternity life took precedence over anything Church-related.
“I was involved in a lot of self-serving activities,” admitted the 28-year-old who continued the lifestyle when an internship brought him to Fort Worth after graduation.
Waking up with a hangover on a Saturday morning made him rethink the trajectory of his life.
“Sitting up in bed, I realized there had to be something more than just going out with friends and drinking,” said the business analyst. “It was a big moment that started my reversion to the faith.”
He went to Mass the following day at St. Patrick Cathedral where he sat in the last pew and soaked in the familiar rituals.
“I spent the next five or six months praying and trying to reconnect,” Martin remembered.
Now he shares his journey back to the faith with teenagers at St. Andrew Parish in Fort Worth.
“I want to evangelize and give some words of wisdom before they go off to college,” the youth leader added. “I lived the party lifestyle and tell them not to go down that sinful path.”
Why they leave
Martin’s story isn’t atypical. Data shows declining church membership across all denominations with the Catholic Church experiencing the steepest loss. The number of Catholics belonging to a parish dropped from 76 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2020 and, according to Pew Research, eight in 10 people who leave the faith do so before age 23.
These aren’t middle-aged Americans disgruntled by Vatican II changes, Brandon Vogt asserts in his 2015 book, “Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church.”
“They’re disenchanted teenagers and young adults,” he wrote. “They’re on social media every day, but there’s one place they’re not: in church.”
Reasons for shunning the faith vary but come down to two main findings, according to Vogt. People simply drift away from religion or leave for specific spiritual and theological reasons.
A general distrust of institutions, authority figures, and Church hierarchy keeps some young people from following any religious tradition. These unaffiliated adults are labeled the “nones” because they check the “none” box when questioned about religious preference.
An experienced youth and young adult minister at both the parish and diocesan level, Jeff Hedglen sees a dichotomy when it comes to millennials and the Church.
“In my experience right now, it seems like a small percentage of young adult Catholics are very involved in the Church. If you’re in, you’re all the way in,” suggested the campus minister at the University of Texas at Arlington. “And if you’re out, you’re all the way out.”
Young, committed Catholics go to Mass one or more times a week.
“And others don’t go at all,” Hedglen pointed out.
An increasing number of young Americans consider themselves spiritual but not religious.
“Because religion comes with rules and people don’t want to deal with rules,” he explained. “They want to live their own life, their own way.”
A changing attitude toward same-sex attraction is also contributing to the growing number of “nones,” according to Hedglen. Many young people are very accepting of peers who are different from them, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.
“Organized religion doesn’t support that so it’s one of the reasons they are distrusting,” Hedglen surmised. “They don’t know why organized religion has issues with homosexuality, but that’s what non-churched young adults are thinking and going through.”
A Pew Research study of America’s Changing Religious Landscape found for every person who becomes Catholic, approximately 6.5 leave the faith. But the campus minister sees signs of hope in his own student community. At least one person has joined the Church or been confirmed during every one of his 21 semesters at UTA.
“It happens all the time but not in huge numbers,” Hedglen observed. “From my conversations with them, it’s because the life they were living didn’t give them meaning. Even among people who aren’t attending church, there is a hunger deep inside of them that’s calling.”
A sense of belonging
A drop in church involvement is noticeable among college and high school-age Americans, but the desire to skip Mass may start as early as the fourth and fifth grade, said Victoria Ramon, diocesan director of youth, young adult, and campus ministry.
“It has to do a lot with parents not practicing their faith at home. Going to Mass is hit or miss because of sports and leagues they belong to,” she explained. “It’s not a priority.”
Just as church attendance drops off, middle and high schoolers are at the age when they start asking pivotal questions like: What is our purpose? Where do we come from? What do we believe?
It’s imperative young people know they can turn to the Church for answers.
“They belong to the Church. It’s their family,” the director stressed. “My hope and prayer is that the aging community in our parishes welcomes the young adults coming in.”
Making room for younger Catholics on parish councils and other leadership roles may inspire others to stay involved.
“Their ideas — the freshness in the way they think — is different from the aging population of the church,” Ramon said. “We need them to lead the Church into the future.”
When he asks young people why they don’t attend church services, the response Deacon Benjamin Grothouse hears most often centers around authenticity.
Impressionable souls see people who claim to be Christian but don’t act Christ-like.
“If the witness we give isn’t authentic and doesn’t show a life that’s been transformed and converted to that of Jesus Christ, we’re just part of an old tradition,” the deacon explained. “They don’t see the love that is brought about by living the Catholic faith, so young people fall away especially if their faith is weak.”
Faith formation, starting at an early age, is important. Playing catch-up with teenagers is more challenging.
“Never force someone into believing something. That’s not the way to win hearts and souls,” advised the 27-year-old who is in his final year of studies for the priesthood. “It starts with education, but the most important thing is showing Jesus Christ to them through our actions and how we pray. Build an authentic prayer life in the home.”
Pray like St. Monica
Millions of Monicas, a national prayer ministry, provides parents with an opportunity to pray together for their children who have abandoned the faith.
Once a week, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and godmothers gather in front of the Blessed Sacrament to pray not only for family members but growth in their own holiness. Patroness of the ministry is St. Monica, whose prayer and example led her pagan husband to Christianity and her son, St. Augustine, to conversion.
In July, St. Martin de Porres Parish in Prosper launched the first Millions of Monicas chapter in Texas. Participants gather each Wednesday from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the daily Mass chapel.
“It’s not counseling or a support group, just quiet prayer,” explained organizer Eileen Keller.
With the exception of an opening and closing song, the only spoken word is a prayer intention. There’s no other sharing.
The Holy Hour has attracted visitors from Sherman, Denton, and Louisiana.
“Being able to intercede for our children and other mother's children is something sorely needed in our Church, and we’re seeing fruit from this,” said the mother of two daughters. “People come here with smiles on their faces and hope in their hearts. They are so burdened but find peace and joy.”
To engage undergraduates in the faith at Texas Christian University, Gabe Gutierrez tries to offer low pressure “on ramps” of opportunity, like trivia night, to build community. Although immersed in social media and technology, many students are lonely.
“It’s a generation more connected than ever before in history, but those connections are not personal,” explained the campus minister. “Add a distrust of institutions and you have the perfect storm of lonely people who don’t know where to turn.”
Most students won’t just walk through the doors of TCU’s Catholic Newman Center.
“It can be intimidating, so you have to be willing to go out, share your faith, and meet people where they are,” he said. “Start with a relationship then invite them into something deeper like Mass or Bible study.”
Gutierrez and his brother, Tony, a Catholic school teacher and former associate editor of the North Texas Catholic, are both committed Catholics. He’s often asked what kept them in the fold.
“My mom prayed the Rosary for my family every night,” he disclosed. “I see our involvement with faith as a fruit of her prayers.”
He encourages parents to follow the example of St. Monica.
“Be persistent in prayer,” he urged. “But also live your faith. If you want your children to remain Catholic, practice the faith yourself and never stop inviting them to join you.”